Thursday, April 9, 2020

Tribute to Our Coal Miners of Kentucky In the TIme of COVID-19

Yesterday, after my post about John Prine's song "Paradise" -  about  the strip mining and the coal miners of Kentucky - we wondered about how they were dealing the coronavirus, down in those thin-aired, coal-dusted mines that could collapse at any moment, knowing their fate is already black lung - just to keep our electricity on. 

You can't keep ventilators, oxygen, vitals-monitoring machines, hot water, hospital-room lights on without electricity - thus, IMO, coal miners are the current unsung/ignored heroes of America. 

Later on, we saw a news segment about that very thing - first about how John Prine's father was from Kentucky, during which we discovered that John Prine donated a percentage of his profits to the coal miners of Kentucky. 

We also learned that though rural America was initially spared infections, just this week, they've had their first cases - but they must still go to work to keep our lights on.  The coal companies were providing some protection, but like everybody else, they were caught out and have little to give. 

The coal miners fare a lot better than they did, back in the day, not so long ago;  however, it's yep, still poor, still risking their lives every day to keep our lights on - during COVID-19.

Before the 1970s, they were essentially slave labor, as well as coal companies tried to buy land from families for pennies, who'd been here for 300 years, in some cases, then bribed local sheriffs to evict them for trumped up charges if they refused. 

Then, they'd forcefully removed people off their land and charge them their full paychecks to live in un-insulated houses with no running water, buy their goods at the company store, offering no health benefits though they would most assuredly get black lung, someday, and no national healthcare.

In the 1930s, as well as in the 1960s, there were strikes that went badly - when paid-off sheriffs to rough up and even murder picketers, and once gain, throwing them off their land to strip mine.

Thus, they began being met by entire families, from Granny on down, with a shotgun in their faces to avoid trumped up evictions, the coal companies bullying them off their land. 

This is why Kentucky is known as "Guntucky" and why they fear guns being taken away - not because of any particular political narrative (though one particular side likes to fan the flames of those fears for votes), but because of this history.  

Houses were burned down, open fire between sides.  Violence erupted many times and became so bad that the federal government was finally called in by the people themselves to quell it - at the request of, and on the side of -  the miners and landowners. 

This is what is known at the "coal-mining wars" and or "The Harlan County War" why Harlan County is called "Bloody Harlan," and why we have a U.S. battleship names the U.S.S. Harlan County - because no one was more raucous, outspoken, and tougher than the coal miners of Harlan. 

My dad's family was from Harlan, and both he and my father were at least briefly coal miners (my grandfather becoming an engineer, and my father attending EKU to obtain double degrees in chemistry and physics).  

I think my dad lasted two weeks in the mines, said "eff this" and left, going to college on a new rural scholarship.  My grandfather mined for a few years before WW2, then joined the navy, then became a deputy, and finally an engineer in Louisville.  Both were lucky enough to leave the Harlan life behind.  

Well, my grandfather left Harlan behind -  and though my dad physically left Harlan, Harlan never left him, let's just say.  

Anyone who has ever watched the show "Justified," which is about life in Harlan (overdramatized, but the story lines and mentality are accurate), will know what I mean. 

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of my father, but I am a huge fan of my straight-arrow, calm, quiet, deep-thinking/intelligent grandfather, who was a decorated Navy-gunner WW2 veteran, who despite being a Republican until his dying day, was nevertheless deputized by the federal government under FDR's democratic administration to help clean up the corruption in the Harlan County Sheriff's department after the war; but after the feds left, he just gave up on Harlan as an unsolvable, toxic puzzle. 

Regardless, both my father and grandfather always reminded me to never forget those poor coal miners working in those mines - doing the hardest job in the country, knowing it could end in mine collape, certain it will end in black lung - for next to nothing - just to keep our electricity on.

This past Christmas, out in front of Walmart, was a stand, asking you to buy toys for the children of Harlan or donating to coal-mining families.  No one was buying the toys, and people were dropping pennies in - so  I gave them a $10 bill.  (Well, half of it - I gave the other $10 to the Salvation Army.)

They were extremely grateful and asked me why I stopped when no one else was.  

I said, "My dad's family was from Harlan, former coal miners who left, and they told me never to forget them, working to keep my lights on, and I feel badly because sometimes, I do."

The lady said, "Aw, you say that like they've left you, honey, I'm sorry, but we're grateful you remembered. We'll make sure it gets to them, thank yewwwww."

Mark:  "That was nice of you, honey, but what was that about? I know you loved your granddaddy, but your dad was a freakin' psychopath.  And they keep voting Republican, even after the federal government stepped in to help them out, at THEIR request. They keep voting to cut their own throats financially, so that they're still in this situation year after year.  Corporations like the coal companies screw them the most, and yet they keep voting Republican, it makes no sense, so I don't feel sorry for them. They keep putting themselves right back in it." 
Me:  "True, but you ever worked 12-hour days, shoveling coal in the dark, blackening your lungs with coal dust all day and risking mine collapse, for pennies compared to the rest of the country? This isn't about right or left politics and which side I give my compassion to, it's about helping people in need, regardless of who's 'deserving' or not.  Even if it was their own fault, we've all effed up and gotten ourselves in messes, at one time or another. And note I gave my other $10 bill in my pocket to the Salvation Army.
"They don't trust anyone from the outside - coal executive OR government - they're all the same to them, because most people who come in from outside of their community have exploited them and screwed them over - even from other parts of Kentucky." 
"They only trust people in their community and they've been Republican since day one, it's all they know.  This is why the don't trust anything or anyone new - not because they're stupid, but they only trust what they can see right in front of them, not what's been promised." 
"As a matter of fact, my dad told me about the mountain code, even for me with kin there.  They'd see me as an uppity city girl.  I was told when going to my grandaddy's funeral, don't look anyone right in the eye, don't speak until spoken to, and the first thing out of your mouth better be the names of your kin from there, or they'd shoot you on site and get away with it."
"They don't even know what's right or wrong anymore, what's up or down, who to trust -  all they know is how to survive despite constant disappointment, being cheated, and trauma - and it's a constant mind-screw as to who to trust." 
"It's easy for us to judge their morality when we haven't lived it.  Same for economically-deprived inner-city street gangs.  It's the exact same thing, only the skin color is different. You can't apply normal society norms and rules to them because they don't work in that system to survive." 
"Regardless, it is possible to have empathy for them, and especially their children, without agreeing with them or at least with their methodology - it's called mercy - because there is no such thing as 'deserving poor'."

Yesterday, after the local news segment, Mark turned to me and said ...

Mark:  "God, I feel so sorry for those people.  I can't imagine working down in those mines all day during this for next to nothing.  The sad thing is, I would've never known about them had it not been for moving here and for you.  Nobody talks about them.  I never knew about the Harlan County wars.  They were a blip on the screen in Detroit.  My only experience with unions was the UAW and Teamsters in Detroit under Hoffa the psychopath, who was even more corrupt and violent than the auto executive thugs, and the mafia played on BOTH sides. "
Me:  "Which is why people shouldn't necessarily assume they should or not support union side, based on their own experiences in their region or on political narrative.  It's not the same everywhere.  The unions started to protect workers, they were a good thing. However, they're only as good as who's in charge, just like companies.  In some places, they became just as corrupt as company executives or politicians Washington, and resorted to violence."
"And you can agree with their point and not agree with their methodology, too, but all of it is easy for us to say when we're observing from afar and not living it." 
"For example, did we all agree that the French Monarchy/Aristocracy were raping the people financially and keeping them poor to support their own extravagance?  Yes.  Should the bourgeois, working, and poor classes have resorted to beheading all nobility and aristocracy and burned Paris to obtain it? No."  
"Did we all agree the Chinese and Russian empires once did the same thing to their people? Yes. Do we think they should've killed off entire royal and imperial families, including children, and turned China and Russia into a communist regime that pretends to be for all the people, but actually has a small oligarchy of people at the top who benefits, every bit as much as a monarchy, but controls their private lives more than ever before? No."
"Should Ireland have fought back against Britain for their independence and treating them like a colonist slave race beneath them?  Yes.  Should the IRA recruit 9-year-old boys to place bombs in public places to kill innocents as well as guilty? No."
"Here in Kentucky, I'm here to tell you, at the time, there was violence on BOTH sides, but the miners and landowners were essentially slaved labor and needed help against the coal companies, so they plead their case to the federal government, and at the time, both Republicans and Democrats welcomed independent unions and federal intervention  -  and it worked. Well, it's better, but they're still dirt poor."
"But the reason you don't hear about them now is not because it's THAT much better, but because both sides have failed them, and it doesn't fit Republican narrative. " 
"Because Neo-Republicans want you to believe it's black people, Mexicans and non-Christians are committing crimes in inner cities, because "they're just like that" - but Eastern Kentuckians are 96%, white, Republican-voting Christians, running drugs and violence just like gang members, trying to survive in an economically deprived area, just like gang members." 
"Republicans know they can't hang this one on Democrats or race or religion, because these places have been staunch Republican, white Christians forever - Harlan, and Eastern Kentucky in general, are definitive proof that frustration with economic deprivation and exploitation causes a population to resort to violent crime, not race, religion, or politics - so it's just "shhh, don't talk about it, hide it."
"We couldn't help them governmentally,  especially now, because their local Republican leaders and corporations have taken advantage of their mistrust of outsiders and told them not to trust the federal government as "deep state," so they can continue to exploit both people and land.  And we can't help them with private business because there's nothing there anybody wants BUT coal as a resource, and it's geographically difficult to access -  no company wants to move there. So charity is all we can do"
"That's the problem and my fear - like Pearl S. Buck's quote, "Any time  the rich get too rich and the poor get too poor, change will happen, people will revolt"  ... and unfortunately, though the principle is sound and true, the methodology of achieving that change, as well as government system that replaces usually aren't - America's government system that replaced tyranny and extravagance was one of few exceptions - although we've gotten dangerously close ourselves a few times."
"I'm a Democrat because because the party stance itself is to promote human and environmental protection philosophy, but economically, I like a good balance between the two economic extremes of capitalism and communism. Unfortunately, Neo-Republican narrative is to peddle propaganda and fear to get you to hate/distrust anyone but themselves."

Regardless - today I'd like to honor what my dad's half of my family asked for and pay tribute to the unsung and forgotten heroes in the coal mines of Eastern and Western Kentucky, who literally gave their lives so we could have electricity.

"Paradise" by  John Prine was featured yesterday, so I'll leave that for you to listen to below. 

As for this song,  "Which Side Are You On," most people don't know the history of it because usually just the chorus is sung.

It eventually became the solidarity song for many solidarity causes including the civil rights rights movement.

However, it was actually written by the wife of the Harlan County Coal Union, Florence Reece, after being terrorized by thugs of the coal companies - but she freely gave the song to the civil rights movement as well:

From Wiki ... 

In 1931, the miners and the mine owners in southeastern Kentucky were locked in a bitter and violent struggle called the Harlan County War. In an attempt to intimidate the family of union leader Sam Reece, Sheriff J. H. Blair and his men, hired by the mining company, illegally entered their home in search of Reece. Reece had been warned in advance and escaped but his wife, Florence, and their children were terrorized. 
That night, after the men had gone, Florence wrote the lyrics to "Which Side Are You On?" on a calendar that hung in their kitchen. She took the melody from a traditional Baptist hymn, "Lay the Lily Low", or the traditional ballad "Jack Munro".[1] 
Reece supported a second wave of miner strikes circa 1973, as recounted in the documentary Harlan County USA. She and others performed "Which Side Are You On?" a number of times throughout. Reece recorded the song later in life, and it can be heard on the album Coal Mining Women. 
The song is referred to by Bob Dylan in the song "Desolation Row". It was also the inspiration for the title of Alessandro Portelli's 2011 book on Harlan County's coal mining community.[2]

Though Peter Seeger famously recorded it 1967, I'm fond of this recording - because it was actually a woman who wrote it for her father, brothers, and husband ...

"Which Side Are You On?"  - Natalie Merchant

Come all you good workers,
Good news to you I'll tell
Of how the good old union
Has come in here to dwell.

Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner,
And I'm a miner's son,
He'll be with you fellow workers
Until this battle's won.

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You'll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.

Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?

Oh workers can you stand it?
Oh tell me how you can?
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

Come all you good workers,
Don't scab for the bosses
Don't listen to their lies
Poor folks ain't got a chance
Unless they organize

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

This next song was made famous by the FX Show, "Justified," and has been rerecorded by Brad Paisley and Trisha Yearwood - but the original, featured in the show, was recorded by Darrell Scott in 1997.

"You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" - Darrell Scott 

"In the deep, dark hills of Eastern Kentucky
That's the place where I trace my bloodline
And it's there I read on a hillside gravestone
"You will never leave Harlan alive"

Well my granddad's dad walked down Katarhain's Mountain
And he asked Tillie Helton to be his bride
He said, "Won't you walk with me out of the mouth of this holler
Or we'll never leave Harlan alive"

Where the sun comes up about ten in the morning
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you fill your cup with whatever bitter brew your drinking
And you spend your life just thinking how to get away

No one ever knew there was coal in them mountains
Til a man from the northeast arrived
Waving hundred dollar bills, he said "I'll pay you for your minerals"
But he never left Harlan alive

Well Granny, she sold out cheap and they moved out west to Pineville
To a farm where Big Richland River winds
And I'll bet they danced them a jig, and they laughed and sang a new song
"Who said we'd never leave Harlan alive?"

But the times, they got hard and tobacco wasn't selling
And old Granddad knew what he'd do to survive
He went and dug for Harlan coal and sent the money back to Granny
But he never left Harlan alive

"Coal Miner's Daughter" - Loretta Lynn

Well, I was borned a coal miner's daughter
In a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler
We were poor but we had love
That's the one thing that daddy made sure of
He shoveled coal to make a poor man's dollar

My daddy worked all night in the Van Lear coal mines
All day long in the field a hoin' corn
Mommy rocked the babies at night
And read the Bible by the coal oil light
And ever' thing would start all over come break of morn

Daddy loved and raised eight kids on a miner's pay
Mommy scrubbed our clothes on a washboard ever' day
Why I've seen her fingers bleed
To complain, there was no need
She'd smile in mommy's understanding way

In the summertime we didn't have shoes to wear
But in the wintertime we'd all get a brand new pair
From a mail order catalog
Money made from selling a hog
Daddy always managed to get the money somewhere

Yeah, I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter
I remember well, the well where I drew water
The work we done was hard
At night we'd sleep 'cause we were tired

I never thought of ever leaving Butcher Holler
Well a lot of things have changed since a way back then
And it's so good to be back home again
Not much left but the floor, nothing lives here anymore
Except the memory of a coal miner's daughter

"The Coal Miner Song" - Jimmy Joe Lee

Can't find the lyrics to it (might transcribe myself later, but don't have time at the moment) - for now, just listen and view the images in the video? :)

"Coal Miner's Blues" - The Carter Family  (A.P., Sarah and Mother Maybelle Carter -  mother of June Carter Cash, wife of Johnny Cash) - considered the "first family/royalty" of Bluegrass/Country music. 

Some blues are just blues, mine are the miner's blues
Some blues are just blues, mine are the miner's blues
My troubles are coming by threes and by twos
Blues and more blues, it's that coal black blues
Blues and more blues, it's that coal black blues

Got coal in my hair, got coal in my shoes
These blues are so blue, they are the coal black blues
These blues are so blue, they are the coal black blues
For my place will cave in and my life I will lose
You say they are blues, these old miner's blues
You say they are blues, these old miner's blues

Now I must have sharpened these picks that I use
I'm out with these blues, dirty coal black blues
I'm out with these blues, dirty coal black blues
We'll lay off tomorrow with the coal miner's blues

I hesitated putting this next song in, because some lyric scares the uber-capitalists into thinking all union workers were communists when this is not so - especially in Harlan, where they were, and still are, 96% Republican.

However, if we more capitalist right/pro-corporate we lean - though we would benefit having more worker protection and socialized healthcare - the more at risk we are for communism to start appealing to the masses, which is why more balance/less extremism and polarization is sorely needed.

However, the song does tell the blatant truth about how all their money went to the company store and rent for inadequate company housing in true exploitation/slave labor.

In this song, she's lamenting an overly "laissez-faire" capitalist system without any restrictions, in which coal miners, in particular, were previously brutally treated and exploited for coal.

It was originally written by Sarah O Gunning from Harlan, Kentucky - again, a miner's wife - in the Irish "keening" fashion - but has been recorded many times by folk/bluegrass artists. 

I personally love this version of Gunning's old song- mixed with a new original song by Bela Fleck/Abigail Washburn :)

"Come All Ye Coal Miners/Take Me To Harlan" - Bela Fleck/Abigail Washburn

Come all ye coal miners wherever you may be
And listen to a story that I'll relate to thee
My name is nothing extry, but the truth to you, I'll tell
I am a coal miner's wife, I'm sure l wish you well.

l was born in old Kentucky, in a coal camp born and bred,
I know all about the pinto beans, bulldog gravy and cornbread,
And I know how the coal miners work and slave in the coal mines every day
For a dollar in the company store, for that is all they pay.

Coal mining is the most dangerous work in our land today
With plenty of dirty. slaving work, and very little pay.
Coal miner, won't you wake up, and open your eyes and see
What the dirty capitalist system is doing to you and me.

They take your very life blood, they take our children's lives
They take fathers away from children, and husbands away from wives.
Oh miner, won't you organize wherever you may be
And make this a land of freedom for workers like you and me.
Dear miner, they will slave you 'til you can't work no more

And what'll you get for your living but a dollar in a company store
A tumbled-down shack to live in, snow and rain pours in the top.
You have to pay the company rent, your dying never stops.

I am a coal miner's wife, I'm sure l wish you well.
Let's sink this capitalist system in the darkest pits of hell.

If you like what you're hearing, there are these, and many, many more - often the original recordings - are featured on an album compiled by Jack Wright which includes many of the original recordings, mixed with some new called "Music of Coal: Mining Songs of the Appalachian Coal Fields." 

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